Fall Theater and Dance Preview 2016-2017

Some thoughts on the fall seasons for theater and dance in Washington:

A View from the Bridge, Reflected

None of these great actors will be on stage when “A View from the Bridge” arrives at the Kennedy Center (Photo by Jan Versweyveld)

Ivo van Hove’s radical staging of Arthur Miller’s A View from the Bridge is one of the most overwhelming theatrical experiences I have ever had. Van Hove, the iconoclastic Belgian director, stripped away the entirety of the naturalistic performance tradition that has dominated American theater for over half a century, revealing something starker, more direct, more primal. Still reeling hours after the play’s end, I imagined the experience to have been like seeing a new tragedy by Sophocles.

And yet it is with great trepidation that I approach the touring version of this production, which won the Tony for Best Director and Best Revival of a Play this June. It will arrive at the Kennedy Center Eisenhower’s Theater this fall, but crucially without the original cast (Nov. 18-Dec. 3). Replacement casts are always dicey propositions—not only for general lack of rehearsal time but also, in this case, for not having participated in van Hove’s famously intense and collaborative process of discovery in the rehearsal room. The touring production also doesn’t seem to be incorporating the on-stage seating*, which gave some 200 audience members a ring-side view of the raw brutality of the play’s caged emotions. Sitting literally feet away from the actors during the play’s devastating conclusion was like mainlining catharsis.

(*Update 10/28/16: The Kennedy Center is now selling on-stage seats for this production.)

IP is Everything

“The ‘Next to Normal’ guys are doing what?” (Photo courtesy of Signature Theatre)

The wackiest project on Washington’s fall theater calendar is confirmation that we are living in the era of Intellectual Property (IP). Composer Tom Kitt and lyricist Brian Yorkey, the creative team behind the lugubrious, Pulitzer Prize-winning rock musical about mental illness, Next to Normal, are turning their hands to an adaptation of the Disney property, Freaky Friday, which will have its world premiere at Signature Theatre (Oct. 4-Nov. 20). Freaky Friday, the classic body-switching children’s novel by Mary Rodgers, has been made into three different Disney movies, most recently the 2003 version, notable for featuring the second best performance of Lindsay Lohan’s acting career (after The Parent Trap). This kind of project only really makes sense for Kitt and Yorkey in an era when commercial realities mean that established IP and brand-name franchises are everything. The best minds of my generation…

Julie Kent Takes Over at the Washington Ballet

The Washington Ballet’s 40th Anniversary Gala Will Feature Choo San Goh’s wonderful “Fives” (Photo Courtesy of the Washington Ballet)

The Julie Kent era at the Washington Ballet kicks off on September 30, with the company’s 40th anniversary gala. Galas are rarely artistically satisfying evenings, given the competing demands of fundraising, speechifying, and mollifying the short attention spans of gala patrons. But this program marks the welcome return to the repertory of one of the Washington Ballet’s former signature works: Fives, an early ballet by Choo San Goh, the most important choreographer associated with the company’s history. Goh, one of the most promising choreographic voices of his generation, was resident choreographer and then associate artistic director from the company’s founding in 1976 until his untimely death in 1987. Fives is a vibrant, exhilarating work that showcases inventive ensemble patterns, and it’s wonderful to see the company honor its past even as it looks ahead. (Full disclosure: my ballet teacher and founding company member, Julie Miles, is staging Fives for this gala).

As for the company’s future, Kent, the new artistic director, has expressed outsized ambitions for this regional, chamber-sized company. Those plans, including an expansion from 21 to 40(!) dancers, will take many, many years and considerable resources to ever realize. In the meantime, this season’s programming gives a clear sense of the company’s direction: away from the singular and mediocre choreographic vision of outgoing artistic director Septime Webre and toward the same trendy repertory that every company seems to be dancing these days (Justin Peck’s In Creases comes in next March, and Alexei Ratmansky’s Seven Sonatas follows in April).

Wheeldon and Ratmansky on Tour

Viktoria Tereshkina as theTsar Maiden, Vladimir Shklyarov as Ivan the Fool and Vasily Tkachenko as the Little Humpbacked Horse (Photo courtesy of the Mariinsky Theatre)

Speaking of trendy choreographers … the big-name event on Washington dance’s calendar this fall seems to be Christopher Wheeldon’s production of Cinderella, which the San Francisco Ballet will be bringing on tour to the Kennedy Center Opera House (Oct. 26-30). Wheeldon’s Cinderella is less a great work of choreography, though, than a visual spectacle and a lavish piece of dance theater—with a principal attraction coming in the form of puppeteer Basil Twist’s imaginative creations.

Far more intriguing, on the level of dance, is Mariinsky Ballet’s production of Alexei Ratmansky’s wonderful story ballet Little Humpbacked Horse (Jan. 31-Feb. 5). Some balletomanes are dismissive of this comic ballet as a mere children’s fable, but the ballet showcases some of the most winning aspects of Ratmansky’s work: wit, humor, impishness, and a generally off-kilter sensibility that surprises and delights (the dance for the six wet nurses is a particular favorite).

Casting, always so crucial, will be interesting to note, given the habit of the Mariinsky Ballet in recent years of effectively dividing the company into two or even three troupes between different, concurrent tours and performances on their home stage. When I first saw the ballet in 2011 in New York, the role of the Tsar Maiden was danced by the ultra classical and elegant ballerina, Evgenia Obraztsova, who has since departed for the Bolshoi. The male lead, Ivan, was exuberantly danced that afternoon by Vladimir Shklyarov, who remains on the Mariinsky’s roster but recently signed with the Bayerische Staatsoper and will take a one-year sabbatical from the Russian troupe. Given this and other recent personnel losses, all signs seem to be ominously pointing to a company in decline.

Food is Art

I can’t even.  (Photo from Facebook)

I’m going to have my popcorn ready for the much publicized opening of the Shaw Bijou, which seems to be a work of performance art as much as anything else.

Fall Classical Music Preview 2016-2017

The fascinating French pianist Lucas Debargue’s solo recital on Nov. 12 is one of the most intriguing concert dates of the season. (Photo by Evgeny Evtyukhov)

Three overall thoughts on the fall season in Washington:

1. This is an emphatically unexciting season for both of Washington’s central musical institutions, the National Symphony Orchestra and the Washington National Opera. But at least with the NSO, there’s hope for the future, as Christoph Eschenbach’s promising successor, Gianandrea Noseda, will drop in to conduct two programs this fall.

2. Washington Performing Arts remains an organization in transition, as it makes an incremental but decided shift in focus toward “contemporary classical,” new music, and less traditional ensembles. But will it maintain its traditional role as the presenter that brings the big guns of the classical music world to town to the satisfaction of the core classical audience?

3. D.C. still remains a world-class touring destination for visiting soloists and ensembles, and much of the most exciting programming this fall is occurring, as it often does, under the auspices of the Phillips Collection, the Library of Congress, Vocal Arts DC, and other chamber music presenters.

Preview of the Coming Attraction at the NSO

Will Gianandrea Noseda be the NSO’s white knight? (Photo from Noseda’s website)

This is Christoph Eschenbach’s final season as music director of the NSO, which means this is hopefully the last time Lang Lang (an Eschenbach favorite) headlines the season opening gala for a while (Sept. 25). But more than any of Eschenbach’s farewell concerts, the most intriguing programs this fall are those that offer a glimpse of the NSO’s promising future under incoming music director Gianandrea Noseda.

Noseda, who officially takes the reins in the 2017-2018 season, will lead two weeks of concerts this year as music director designate. The first program, featuring the complete score to Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet, showcases Noseda’s strengths in the Russian repertory (and in ballet music) he developed as principal guest conductor at Russia’s Mariinsky Theatre (Nov. 3-5). Noseda then returns in January with an evening of Americana (Bernstein, Copland, Gershwin, and John Williams) for the Kennedy Center’s JFK tribute—an obligatory bit of programming that at least gestures toward a commitment to American music that the NSO hasn’t had since the Leonard Slatkin era (Jan. 19, 22). Will Noseda be the one to elevate the NSO from the state of perpetual mediocrity it has been mired in for decades? Only time will tell, but we’ll get an intriguing preview of things to come this fall.

Discontent with the WNO

Nozze, on opening night, again?  (Photo by Todd Rosenberg)

I’ve heard from more than one long-time Washington National Opera subscriber who has cancelled their season subscription because of dissatisfaction with the company’s programming this season. The most common complaint is two-fold: the over-programming of newer operas (Jake Heggie’s Dead Man Walking and Terence Blanchard’s Champion come in this spring), which the company seemingly attempted to balance by putting on three of the more tired warhorses in the operatic repertory: Nozze, Butterfly, and La Fille du Regiment. While the disgruntled ex-subscribers said they would prefer to see only one contemporary work per season, they would more willingly tolerate two newer operas if the season’s other three productions weren’t things they’d already seen a dozen times in their lives. They want less standard, less routine repertory from the operatic canon. If the season demands Puccini, do La fanciulla del West instead of Butterfly, one of my interlocutors suggested.

I have also heard from a recent denizen of the DC area who has never been without an opera subscription anywhere he and his wife have lived in the world.  But the “bizarrely balanced” WNO schedule (a mix of “new and boring” and “old and boring,” in his words) has him looking into a Met subscription and banking Acela miles.

All that said, and with apologies to my new opera-phobic friends, the most promising project of the WNO season is not any of the mainstage productions but the latest installment of WNO’s hour-long opera initiative: The Dictator’s Wife, a new work with music by the exciting young New York-based composer Mohammad Fairouz and libretto by Pakistani writer Mohammed Hanif (Jan. 13 and 15).

The title character of Fairouz and Hanif’s new opera, while unnamed, is based on the wife of former Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, Sebha.  As previewed by Dexter Filkins in a fascinating New Yorker profile, Hanif’s libretto leaves the dictator off-stage and represents him only in the form of a sardonic song performed by his aide-de-camp:

When you’re forced to bugger
200 million people
You need time to recover.
After you have rigged the elections
After all your positive actions
You need a few moments of self–reflection
Me time.

This will undoubtedly be a more invigorating night at the opera than yet another regional production of Nozze or Fille (sorry, Francesca, I’m not calling it “Daughter”).

Visiting Orchestras, and One Not-Visiting Orchestra

Semyon Bychkov will lead the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra on Nov. 29 in one of the few appearances by a major international orchestra in Washington this season (Photo by Chris Christodoulou)

When Washington Performing Arts announced its 2016-17 season last spring, I took the absence of the Berlin Philharmonic, which is touring North America this fall, as a sign that the organization was shifting its resources away from pricey presentations of international orchestras toward other priorities. Looking at the Berlin Phil’s calendar, I saw there was an opening on November 8 that seemed like it would have been ideal for a Washington concert date.  The orchestra’s final concert in Berlin before crossing the Atlantic is on November 5, and its tour doesn’t begin until November 9 at Carnegie Hall, leaving a gaping, D.C.-sized hole in its schedule.

As it turns out, and as I subsequently reported, WPA would have gotten the Berlin Philharmonic this season, if not for some unfortunate miscommunication among the orchestra, the orchestra’s tour manager, and WPA.  While that revelation doesn’t make me feel better about missing out on Sir Simon Rattle’s final North American tour (which will also hit Boston, Ann Arbor, Toronto, Costa Mesa, and San Francisco), it is heartening, in a sense, that the oversight was inadvertent.

Washington will have to make do with the Royal Concergtebouw Orchestra, which will be performing Detlev Glanert’s Theatrum Bestiarum and Mahler’s Symphony No. 5 on November 29. Yes, we just heard the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra play Mahler 5 in April, but it’s still the Royal Concertgebouw, and they’ll be led by the wonderful Semyon Bychkov, whom I last heard in Vienna conducting an astounding performance of Richard Strauss’ Ein Heldenleben.

The Royal Concertgebouw had a set program for its international tour that WPA couldn’t change. But presumably, WPA has a bit more leverage with the Philadelphia Orchestra, which it regularly presents in Washington. Yannick Nézet-Séguin is doing excellent work with the still fabulous Philadelphians, but this season’s program is an object lesson in what visiting orchestras should not perform: an unexciting soloist in an unexciting concerto (Louis Lortie playing the Chopin E Minor), followed by more over-familiar repertory, Stravinsky’s Petrouchka (Jan. 24). Next time, WPA, ask Yannick for some more interesting programming.

Solo Bach(s)

Alisa Weilerstein performs the complete solo Bach suites on October 16 at the UDC Theater of the Arts (Photo by Harald Hoffmann/DECCA)

This season offers a rare opportunity to compare two very different soloists take on some of the most beloved music in the cello repertory: Bach’s complete Cello Suites. First up on October 16 at the UDC Theater of the Arts will be the American cellist Alisa Weilerstein, an intense and passionate artist most at home in the Romantic repertory. Weilerstein’s last WPAS recital in 2014, with pianist Inon Barnatan, offered deeply expressive readings of Debussy, Schubert, Shostakovich, and Rachmaninoff. It will be fascinating to hear her interpretations of the Bach suites.

Then on January 29, French cellist Jean-Guihen Queyras performs the complete cycle at the Phillips Collection. Queyras’ recording of the Bach Cello Suites from 2007 is among my favorites, displaying the cellist’s supple and sensitive musicality. And the week before Queyras’ recital, the Phillips Collection will be present another solo Bach recital: the German violinist Isabelle Faust will perform three of Bach’s Sonatas and Partitas, including the great D Minor Partita (Jan. 22). Faust’s recordings of the solo Bach repertory are lean, unfussy, and intense; I look forward to hearing her live.

Piano Competition Medalists

The French pianist Lucas Debargue has gained a cult following in the music world since his sensational fourth place finish at the 2015 Tchaikovsky Competition (Photo by Bernard Bonnefon)

For better or for worse, piano competitions remain an important focal point in the music world and serve as launching pads for ambitious young artists seeking international careers. This season offers the chance for D.C. audiences to take stock of several recent piano competition medalists. By far the most intriguing piano recital this fall features the fascinating young French pianist, Lucas Debargue. Debargue, who was self-taught into his teens, finished fourth in 2015 Tchaikovsky Competition, polarizing opinion with the originality and eccentricity of his playing. (Technically, finishing fourth, Debargue was not a Tchaikovsky medalist, but he was honored with a special prize from the Moscow music critics.)  Debargue’s Washington Performing Arts recital program includes pieces recorded for his debut CDs for Sony: four Scarlatti sonatas, Beethoven’s Op. 10, No. 3 sonata, Chopin’s Ballad No.4, and Ravel’s Gaspard de la Nuit (Nov. 12, UDC Theater for the Arts). Don’t miss it.

The Phillips Collection is featuring its own line-up of major competition medalists this fall: Denis Kozhukhin (winner of the 2010 Queen Elisabeth Competition) on October 16; Lukáš Vondráček (winner of the 2016 Queen Elisabeth Competition) on November 6; and Vadym Kholodenko (winner of the 2013 Van Cliburn Competition) on November 13.

Early Music at the Library of Congress

Early music pioneer Jordi Savall returns to D.C. on February 4 with his renowned ensemble, Hespèrion XXI (Photo by David Ignaszewski)

Early music lovers will encounter an almost embarrassment of riches in the Library of Congress’s fall season. Fortepianist Kristian Bezuidenhout, whose Mozart and C.P.E. Bach recital last fall at the Phillips Collection was a marvel of interpretive daring, expressive freedom, and technical resourcefulness, returns to Washington with a program of Beethoven and Haydn (October 26). The renowned British vocal ensemble, the Tallis Scholars, presents an evening of Renaissance music on December 6. British harpsichordist Richard Egarr, whose recent recording of Bach’s French Suites received a rave from my colleague Charles Downey, offers a recital highlighting 17th century English keyboard music (January 13). And on February 4, early music pioneer Jordi Savall, who performed a magisterial solo recital for viola da gamba last winter, comes back to town, this time with his early music ensemble, Hespèrion XXI, to perform a program centered on the Venetian Republic.

Listings: Highlights of the Fall Season

October 5: Mezzo Joyce DiDonato with the Brentano String Quartet, Kennedy Center Family Theater

October 16: Cellist Alisa Weilerstein (Bach solo cello suites), UDC Theater of the Arts

October 17: Tenor Mark Padmore and pianist Andrew West (Beethoven songs, Schubert’s Schwanengesang), Library of Congress, Coolidge Auditorium

October 18: Tenor Lawrence Brownlee, Kennedy Center Family Theater

October 26: Fortepianist Kristian Bezuidenhout (Beethoven, Haydn), Library of Congress, Coolidge Auditorium

October 28: Violinist Hilary Hahn and pianist Robert Levin (Bach, García Abril, Turk, Mozart, Schubert), Kennedy Center Concert Hall

November 3-5: National Symphony Orchestra, Gianandrea Noseda conductor (Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet), Kennedy Center Concert Hall

November 12: Pianist Lucas Debargue (Scarlatti, Beethoven, Chopin, Ravel), UDC Theater of the Arts

November 13: Bass-baritone Eric Owens and soprano Susanna Phillips, with pianist Myra Huang (Schubert songs), UDC Theater of the Arts

November 29: Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, Semyon Bychkov conductor (Glanert, Mahler), Kennedy Center Concert Hall

December 6: The Tallis Scholars, Library of Congress, Coolidge Auditorium

December 6: Baritone Christian Gerhaher and pianist Gerold Huber (Mahler songs), UDC Theater of the Arts

January 13: Harpsichordist Richard Egarr, Library of Congress, Coolidge Auditorium

January 13 & 15: The Dictator’s Wife (world premiere), Washington National Opera, Kennedy Center Family Theater

January 19 & 22: National Symphony Orchestra, Gianandrea Noseda conductor (Bernstein, Copland, Gershwin, Williams), Kennedy Center Concert Hall

January 22: Violinist Isabelle Faust (Bach Partita in E, Sonata in C,  Partita in D minor), Phillips Collection

January 26-28: National Symphony Orchestra, violinist Gidon Kremer, Christoph Eschenbach conductor (Weinberg Violin Concerto, Shostakovich Symphony No. 8), Kennedy Center Concert Hall

January 29: Cellist Jean-Guihen Queyras (Bach solo cello suites), Phillips Collection

February 4: Jordi Savall and Hespèrion XXI, Library of Congress, Coolidge Auditorium

Yannick Nézet-Séguin’s latest Mozart is a missed opportunity

(Deutsche Grammophon)
Le Nozze di Figaro

Yannick Nézet-Séguin and the Chamber Orchestra of Europe. Deutsche Grammophon.

What a missed opportunity this latest recording of “Le Nozze di Figaro” is. In each of the past three years, Deutsche Grammophon has released a live concert performance of a Mozart opera from Baden-Baden, Germany, with starry casts under the baton of the dynamic Canadian conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin. But what should have been a crown jewel of Nézet-Séguin’s Mozart cycle is undermined by lackluster performances in three of the four leading roles…

Read the full review here (Washington Post, September 2, 2016)